Spring Journal: Mossy Creek

My introduction to Mossy Creek, near Bridgewater, Virginia, was a short one. I was OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA dropped off at one of the two access points to public water on this stream and then prepared to explore. Only eight miles long, Mossy flows into the North River and  contributes to the Shenandoah River watershed and Chesapeake Bay. The four miles of public water can be accessed with a Virginia fishing license and a free permit that you sign at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in Verona.

My first impression of the stream was that of spring’s pastoral beauty. A sunlit stream flowed calmly through the rolling farmland of northern Virginia. The stream’s flat surface, averaging 10 to 20 feet in width, revealed an olive murkiness and a mass of undulating grasses. A father with two young sons, each of them carrying over-sized landing nets and fly rods tipped with long white streamers, headed upstream on a path well-used by fishermen and cattle. I gave them time to separate by kneeling at the edge of this limestone creek, perhaps the most famous fishing destination in the state.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI took photos of a painted turtle and thought about the browns sheltering in vegetation and in undercut banks. The trout are wild or grown from planted fingerlings. Fly-fishers come from near and far to fish for these difficult trout, many of which have grown to the 20-inch mark and beyond. Mossy Creek, issuing from limestone springs, maintains a relatively even temperature throughout the year and is super-rich in nutrients for healthy fish.

Although the stream’s flow is stable, its bed is basically silt and gravel. Wading is discouraged. Here you walk the banks English-style and stalk the fish discretely. The water is usually clear, and you may have only one cast per pool before the fish are spooked. I’ve read that the fishing here can be challenging even for experienced anglers, many of whom will leave the water scratching their heads.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I had two hours of midday fishing under a bright sky so I wasn’t overly optimistic when starting out. The water was too murky for dry flies, and streamers would be difficult to handle over the grass beds in the tricky currents.

Cattle were near the creek as I worked upstream from the bridge. Dairy cows shuffled along the banks or into the stream over much of the first half mile of water that I covered. In this section, at least, fences protected very little of the stream. Here and there, a cow stood knee-deep in Mossy Creek, drinking and pissing away a world-class OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfishery. I stopped my progress and tried to put the scene into perspective.

Back in the 1970s, Trout Unlimited and other organizations, in cooperation with local farmers, brought this stream back from the dead. Eroded and polluted, Mossy Creek was  fenced and stabilized by dedicated anglers and conservationists who had promised landowners that trout would be stocked there if the public was allowed to fly-fish on their waters. The creek became an icon of successful rehab on Virginia streams.

So why did I have to detour around these unfenced cattle? Maybe I shouldn’t be complaining, given the fact I wouldn’t be here except by the good graces of these landowners. Years ago, I ran into a similar situation on the private banks of Beaver Creek, a fly-fishing tributary of this stream. I spoke with other anglers on both of these creeks but nobody seemed overly concerned about erosion from the hooves of thirsty cattle.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI did learn that Trout Unlimited is fixing up erosion problems on the lower stretch of the public access water here, but learning that conservationists are working on stream improvements didn’t really answer my question.

A 9-foot fly rod with a 4-weight line is probably a good choice of instrument to use on Mossy Creek. Where the stream is narrow, the longer rod is useful for efficient line control, and where it’s wide and cushioned by mats of vegetation, longer casts may be required. Tricos and terrestrial imitations are a key to successful summer outings. For an early spring day I looked for midge or olive hatches but could not discern much bug activity. I selected a heavy black stonefly nymph and dropped it into areas where big trout could be hiding.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA small brown took the weighted fly as it drifted into shadows of a log. It would be my only catch of the day. A second fish was briefly on the hook. Returning to the access area, I let the nymph swim naturally into deep water under the bridge and then returned it slowly along a seam of rapid water. When the fly was about 10 feet from the rod, a large trout swam up and narrowly missed taking the fly.

Minutes later I was on the other side of the bridge and tried for the fish again. The brown made a second rush for the nymph but stopped short as though in recognition of danger. My jaw dropped, I am sure, when I saw that fish again.

The freely-drinking cattle may have given me doubt about the creek’s health and character, but now there wasn’t any question swaying in my head about the stream’s potential for growing heavy trout.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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6 Responses to Spring Journal: Mossy Creek

  1. The cows vs. water issue is one we’ve struggled with in Florida for many years. Rather than pristine streams, here the effluent and nutrients flow through the porous limestone and emerge in our springs. I hope the folks up in Virginia can find a solution protects the stream without alienating the landowners. As always, Walt, you do a wonderful job of describing these amazing places. It’s always a pleasure to read because I feel like I’m standing there with you. (Only I would be standing there with a fly in my ear and line wrapped around my legs, most likely.)

    • Thank you, Jim. I think that’s the issue here. Anglers have to be thankful to the landowners that they have a great opportunity to fish. If they see the problem that unfenced cattle present, they may want to rush in with solutions but have to be careful about offending landowners and losing the chance to fish there. It’s a fine line to walk (barbwire maybe). The good news is that there’s recognition of the problem today, and some folks are working on it.


      • Bob Stanton says:

        Glad to see that you have the opportunity to sample a variety of Virginia’s fly water. This post reminded me of VA’s seemingly bizarre stream access laws, most notably the controversy around the Jackson River and the “King’s Grant” or whatever they call the archaic law that’s at the root of the issue. Looking foward to more dispatches from the land of cotton.

      • Bob, I’d forgotten all about that Jackson River “King’s Grant” business, but now remember reading about it, how senseless it all seemed. Yeah it’s taken me a while to figure out Virginia’s weird licensing system and regulatory web. For example, if an out-of-stater wants to come in and fish on waters stocked with trout (which I did not), an additional permit (something like $47 for 5 days) is required on top of the general fishing license. If you want to fish for wild trout only, it’s a whole lot cheaper to get licensed. It helps to know exactly where you want to fish and what you want to fish for. The state does not make it easy for the visitor.


  2. argosgirl says:

    Cattle in streams seems to be a big issue pretty much everywhere. We have several feeder creeks in my area that support the Grand River. I cringe every time I drive by the farms that have absolutely no fencing and no vegetation around these streams. I have yet to find a successful way of encouraging the farmers to limit cattle from accessing the streams. Aside from the cattle, sounds you like had another wonderful outing.

  3. I, too, know the cringe response to seeing cattle wallowing unfenced in upland streams, especially in waters that could otherwise support wild trout populations. Erosion hurts everybody downstream. Some of the farmers in my home region have responded favorably to fencing suggestions when groups like TU and Soil & Water lend a helping hand with labor and finance. Grants are available, in some instances, to support fencing and access projects. It’s a battle, for sure, but worth the effort when conservation groups and farmers get together. Thanks much for contributing to the discussion!

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